Yetta Lazri pours her soul into running her salon. Yet, showing up to work at a shopping strip dotted with empty storefronts can be downright demoralizing.
Lazri’s A Touch of Sun Hair and Spa has served Spuyten Duyvil for more than a decade, most of that time on Kappock Street, until an out-of-control car careened into her store early last year, forcing her to start anew on Knolls Crescent
While Lazri’s loyal customers followed her around the corner, the Kappock and Knolls shopping mall has turned increasingly desolate from a growing number of long-term vacancies, including the Knolls Cleaners, Tiffany Nail, a newsstand and deli down the street, and another beauty salon.
Latest to shutter was the beloved Kappock Cafe and Wine Bar next door to Lazri’s salon at 17A Knolls Crescent, where a sign reportedly posted over the weekend of July 13 on the cafe’s front gate unceremoniously announced the place permanently closed after 18 years in business.
The eatery’s demise came after a July 2 inspection from the city’s health department revealed multiple violations, including cold food stored at above-safe temperatures, cross-contamination, and evidence of mice scurrying about.
Peter Batu, the cafe’s owner, could not be reached for comment.
But sanitary violations may not have been the restaurant’s only troubles. In fact, small businesses citywide struggle with a slew of challenges from ever-increasing rents to onerous taxes, to a shifting business landscape that has drawn consumers to the internet and away from bricks-and-mortar mom-and-pops.
“It’s not easy to have a business,” said Lazri, who typically logs grueling 12- to 14-hour days. “At first you open, you’re excited. But then, a couple years after that, it’s not about you anymore. It’s about everybody — the people that work for you, the people you take care of, the community, which is very important. I care for everybody. It’s a lot of struggling.”
Soaring expenditures don’t ease the burden.
“Everything is expensive,” Lazri said. “Every day it becomes more and more hard. Everything goes up every year. The products go up, your rent goes up, electricity, water — and the taxes.”
But Lazri’s services? The prices haven’t changed, she said, despite rent tripling from when she started. And keeping it easy on her customers’ coffers leaves Lazri with little choice.
“You work harder,” she said. “I have only one day off. I’m happy when, at the end of the month, I’ve paid all of my bills and I don’t have to pay interest.
“I don’t know how people around me do it, but that’s my challenge.”
Lazri can’t say with certainty what may have prompted the Kappock cafe’s closure, other than what she suspects was the health department’s damning inspection … and the rent monster.
A representative for Lazri’s landlord — billionaire Lawrence Friedland, who founded Friedland Properties with his late brother Melvin in 1960 — refused to comment, citing a company policy of not speaking to the press.
While Friedland wouldn’t reveal his plans for the closed-down cafe space — or for any of the stores he owns along Knolls Crescent — in most cases, it’s no mystery why businesses fold, said Ira Fishman, partner at NAI Global’s HSP Real Estate.
“People usually go out (of business) because they’re not making money, or they’re losing money, and they close up,” Fishman said. “Once in a while, if a lease is over, they move to different spaces, or they relocate. But for someone going out in the middle of the lease, it’s usually a financial reason.”
Friedland — who also owns more than 20 buildings on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, as well as many of the storefronts on Johnson Avenue — employs what has become known as his “Madison Avenue Strategy,” according to published reports, leaving stores vacant until he snags the tenant — and the rent — he wants. The practice has come under fire from some local decision-makers, including former Community Board 8 chair Robert Fanuzzi.
But that’s not to say Friedland isn’t eager to fill those spaces.
“If the space is vacant, the objective is to rent space,” Fishman said. “And if he’s not happy with the deal, he doesn’t have to make it. But I don’t know too many landlords that don’t want to rent vacant space.”
As for motivations behind acquiring properties and charging higher rents, that’s case-by-case, Fishman said.
“You can ask whatever you want,” Fishman said. “If it’s not a market deal, you’re not going to rent it. The market dictates what you can get. If someone wants to hold out for a rent, they’ll just have to keep it vacant.”
Given the market’s current state, it’s not particularly surprising, Fishman says, more stores are empty.
“I would say right now retail in the City of New York, as I’m sure it is in all the boroughs, is soft,” Fishman said. “There’s definitely been an impact from the internet. It’s affected the retail. And you have a lot more vacancies than you’ve had over recent years. The rents are definitely reflective of that. They are coming down a little bit.”
Real estate, Fishman added, is “a pure microcosm of the way the capitalist economy works. It’s all about supply and demand.”
That’s of less concern to Lazri, however, than her personal struggle to survive in what she sees as a kind of calling. But if the bottom line and keeping her customers happy weren’t enough to worry about, she’s heard chatter among some neighbors Friedland may be looking to develop some of the lots in the Knolls Crescent shopping center into high-rises.
“Personally, I want this to be my place until I retire,” Lazri said. “I heard the rumor, but I hope it’s not the truth.”
In the meantime, empty stores are doing nothing to lift her spirits.
“It’s actually depressing,” Lazri said, “because you come to work and your next door neighbors are closed. Who wants to go and do their business in a place where half of the stores are closed?”